Thinking like a mountain; landscape ecology

Cartographers are generally big-picture thinkers. Especially since the advent of GIS (Geographic Information Systems), which interfaces between maps and databases, we can ask increasingly sophisticated questions of our maps.

The brown bear’s year 1) Emergence Late-March to May. Most dens in high country. 2) Spring Bears descend for sedges, skunk cabbage, and deer carcasses. Key habitats: south-facing avalanche slopes, fens, and tidal marshes. 3) Early summer Breeding. Until midsummer, dispersed from sea level to alpine ridges. Tidal sedge flats, subalpine meadows, upland forests, and avalanche slopes. 4) Salmon By mid-July, in riparian forests and estuaries for pink & chum. Small, shallow reaches easiest to fish, claimed by alphas. (Some sows with cubs never use streams). 5) Berries By mid-September, into high forest and slide zones for currants and devil’s club. 6) Denning Pregnant females den by mid-October, roots of large trees or natural rock caves. Males last to enter dens.

In 2001, I created this cartoon of a brown bear’s landscape movements in collaboration with Kim Titus of the Department of Fish & Game, based upon his studies of telemetered bears. Since that time, wildlife studies have become ever more sophisticated, following, for example, the hourly movements of collared deer through intimately mapped terrain.

Screen-caps from a movie of deer locations, animated from hourly satellite fix, on terrain coded by habitat type. Dave Gregovich, ADF&G.

The phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’ comes from the title of a famous essay by Aldo Leopold, describing an epiphany as he watched a wolf die, killed just because that’s what young guys did in those days. As he matured, Aldo began to wonder if the mountain didn’t have a different way of ‘thinking’ about wolves than our myopic two-legged assessment. What he was reaching for was landscape ecology.

The way we measure landscapes, increasingly, is through GIS. Technology simultaneously isolates and empowers us in ‘thinking like mountains.’ On the one hand, we spend ever more time at computers. On the other, only through extraordinary tools, like this ‘movie’ of a deer’s winter can we even ask the right questions, let alone muddle toward answers. At Discovery, we hope to nurture a generation of future naturalists, as proficient in bushwacking as in digital measurement.

One of my first immersions in big-picture landscape ecology came in the Landmark Trees Project, 1996 through 2005. One landform that consistently yielded giant spruces was karst—the soluble topography of limestone and marble. About halfway through that big-tree trophy hunt, Bob Christensen introduced me to GIS. Suddenly I was able to make maps like the one below. USFS Regional Geologist Jim Baichtal gave me a shapefile of the extent of karst, and I was well on the way to having a map of strongest Landmark Trees potential.

But all karst is not equally predictive of 10-foot diameter spruces, particularly a one-acre stand of them. In the map below, I separated out the low elevation karst.

Next, of course, we could overlay the USFS layer called activity_polygon.shp, an interesting moniker for clearcuts. This would rule out probably >98% of the mapped high-grade, low elevation karst for landmark trees hunting. This cookie-cutter approach gets us closer and closer to actually hugging one of those miraculous survivors, way back from the coast, where even the intrepid hand loggers never ventured. Oh yeah, we could also apply an exclusionary coastal buffer to deal with that parameter.

You get the idea. . . GIS. Landscape ecology. Aldo would have loved and hated it. Simultaneously.

Landscape ecology connects the biotic and abiotic. In this case, big trees reflect the distribution of carbonate rocks, which in turn are arrayed according to the position of ancient geological terranes.

In this section

Mid-May on Shaa Tlaax

Goats, geology & zonation on Shaa Tlaax, moldy top (Mt Juneau) Video-journal of the flora, fauna, and geomorphology that hikers…

2019 | Richard Carstensen | 4 minutes

Kaxdigoowu Héen (Montana Creek): presentation for SEAL Trust

Slideshow in two parts Kaxdigoowu Héen, going back clearwater has been one of my favorite places since I first explored…

2019 | Richard Carstensen & John Hudson | slide show in 2 parts: 38 & 22 minutes


Better basin boundaries During the Juneau wetland surveys in 2014, the Bosworth Botanical team (Koren Bosworth, Catherine Pohl, Andrew Allison…

2014 | Richard Carstensen | 4 pages

Hammered gems & unproductive leftovers.

In 2008, Bob Christensen and I were 3 years into the Ground-truthing Project. During those 3 years, the Forest Service…

2008 | Carstensen & Christensen | 30 pages

Ground-truthing Project final report, 2005

The Ground-truthing Project, sponsored by Sitka Conservation Society, ran from 2005 to 2010. Kenyon Fields at SCS administered the program,…

2005 | Carstensen & Christensen | 63 pages

Area descriptions for CBJ wetlands surveys, 2014

Supplement to the 2016 Juneau Wetlands Management Plan In summer 2014, Koren Bosworth, Cathy Pohl, Andrew Allison and I surveyed…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 8 separate pdfs, 2 to 5 MB

2018 flight, Juneau to Klawock

On July 1st, 2018, I flew from Juneau to Klawock in superb photography weather. Beautiful lighting after we passed out…

2018 | Richard Carstensen | 44 pages

2008 flight over Sitka use area

In September, 2008, I ferried to Sitka to help Sitka Conservation Society host funders and biologists. In a Beaver, we…

2008 | Richard Carstensen | 29 pages

Suitability for logging

In 2009, after several years of cruising the Tongass timberlands under the auspices of Sitka Conservation Society, I wrote them…

2009 | Richard Carstensen | 19 pages

Southeast habitats (draft)

Summit to sea: Terrestrial, coastal & freshwater habitats of Southeast Alaska Here’s the first 11 pages of a 150-page draft…

2018 draft | Richard Carstensen | 11 page excerpt

2003 winter newsletter: A deer’s map of the forest

Seeing the forest through a deer’s eyes. Thoughts on forest structure and habitat values, resulting in large measure from travels…

2000 spring newsletter: River relations

Connections between the coastal rainforest and the boreal interior. For millennia, transboundary rivers have served as portals for species colonization,…

2000 | Richard Carstensen, Steve Merli | 9 pages

1997 fall newsletter. Admiralty impressions: Xutsnoowú through time

Twenty million years on Xutsnoowú, bear fortress (Admiralty Island). Back to the days before glaciers turned it into an island,…

5 | Richard Carstensen | 5 pages

New tools for old naturalists

The 21st-century cartographer New tools for old naturalists In March, 2015, I gave a fireside presentation at the Mendenhall Visitor…

2015 | Richard Carstensen | 31 minutes

Focus and breadth: science and natural history in Southeast Alaska

In March, 2015, I gave a banquet presentation to the Alaska Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Afterwards, I archived it…

2015 | Richard Carstensen | 31 minutes

Cowee walk video

20160526  Quadcopter video of Ch’eet’ Taayi, murrelet fat (Cowee Creek) over uplift meadow and blooming wildflowers. Cathy Pohl, Steve Merli…

2016 | Richard Carstensen | 2:42

Héen Latinee high country

Excerpt from a lengthy scoping document on Héen Latinee Experimental Forest, at the northern edge of Áak’w Aaní. Geography, geology,…

2010 | Richard Carstensen | 11 Pages

2001 fall newsletter: Off trail

Our Fall 2001 newsletter includes an article by Steve Merli exploring the benefits of going off trail with kids, and…

Fall 2001 | Steve Merli, Richard Carstensen | 6 pages

Outer Point brochure

Four-fold brochure created for the CBJ Natural History Project describes 14 interpretive stations along the Outer Point Loop Trail. On…

2013 | Richard Carstensen | 2 pages

Wildlife “out the road”

Report †to the Southeast Alaska Land Trust on habitats and wildlife use of glacially-rebounding valleys from 25 to 28-mile Glacier…

2003 | Richard Carstensen | 35 pages